Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Board Games at Retail: Cause and Effect

I play more board games these days than any other type of game, including Magic: the Gathering and video games.  That is partly a function of how busy I am, but also a matter of deliberate preferences.  In case you're curious, my latest few enjoyments have been Costa Rica, the Panic series, Dominion Empires, and Lanterns.  As a player, I am deeply invested in the board game world and I care a great deal what happens to it.  That's why it bothers me that board games are in such a rough spot right now at brick-and-mortar retail.

There is a common refrain I hear and read from veteran board gamers nowadays, and it sounds a lot like this:
I remember when my FLGS (friendly local game store) used to have all the best games for aisles and aisles.  They had great sales and specials and the owner was friendly.  But now when I go back, it's just a Magic store.  The tables are always taken up by card players or sprawling Warhammer games.  They don't have anything I want, everything is priced double what it costs online, and the guy working the counter just sneers at me.  I don't bother going there anymore, I'll buy online from now on, and those stores need to die off like the obsolete dinosaurs they are.
If you think I'm exaggerating, you think incorrectly.  Every week or so there is a trainwreck thread of hundreds of posts on the Board Game Geek forums or BGG's Facebook page in which this narrative is thrown about and store owners, store champions, community builders, and publisher advocates argue against the growing throngs of, shall we say, thrifty board gamers who are delighted to blame the FLGS for forcing them to develop their Amazon crack habit.
The problem with that narrative is it reverses cause and effect.  It has the situation exactly backward.  Those board gamers didn't move their purchasing online because of their FLGS becoming a Magic den; that's merely a rationalization that lets them evade the truth: their FLGS became a Magic den because those board gamers moved their purchasing online.

The Board Game Geek grognards love to sneer, "Adapt or die, losers!" to store owners, but what they don't grasp is that the store owners did adapt.  They adapted by turning the spotlight toward Magic, Pokemon, comics, miniatures, and/or video games, and away from board games.  That's why they were abrupt with you when you went back.  They didn't dump you, you dumped them.  Now you're drunk-dialing them a year later at three in the morning.  How do you expect them to react?

This is not to say that Magic is the only means of survival for an FLGS, though privately many retailers I network with suspect that Magic is propping up more stores than we realize.  The truth is that board games aren't a great match for brick-and-mortar retail stores in the smartphone shopping landscape/era anyway, and that is rooted in the nature of the product.

A typical board game is a self-contained entertainment module, and most are neither scarce nor collectible.  The board game is procured and taken home to be played by close friends or family in a private setting.  There is no need for organized play, for the most part.  There is no need for a community of players, a "network of nodes" as WizKids President Justin Ziran put it.  A constructible or collectible game tends to get stronger the more places it's being played.  So you have games like Magic, HeroClix, Warhammer, Netrunner, and X-Wing, all of which become tremendously better if there is organized play at an FLGS, and it makes sense for the publishers to take steps to reinforce their brand value and drive customers to retail rather than online, to create as many nodes as possible for that network.  But once I buy a copy of Dead of Winter, I have zero need for an FLGS to facilitate anything.  I take it home.  I play with friends and family.  Aside from curation, immediacy, tactile benefit, and maybe a modicum of guidance, there isn't much of a value proposition at retail for board games.  Unless you count social factors, which I do not, and neither does the thrifty Board Game Geek hardcore contingent.

Curation, immediacy, tactile benefit, and guidance.  The board-game centric stores that are succeeding right now are hitting it out of the park in these areas, often all of them.  They have enough square footage and staff development to demo the latest and greatest on the spot, and industry numbers suggest this creates up to 400% improvement on sell-through of the demo'ed title.  The results suggest that what these stores are doing has value.  For a busy working professional who knows that his or her time is valuable, I think you'll see recognition of that, and maybe that informs why these great stores are often located in affluent employment epicenters: Seattle, Chicago, New York, the DC/Baltimore/Philly corridor, San Francisco, and like such.  Your typical division head at Microsoft who enjoys casual tabletop isn't going to scour Board Game Geek for ratings, reviews, and a walkthrough on how or what to buy for Thanksgiving weekend with the in-laws and cousins visiting his Bellevue dwelling.  That guy is going to walk into Meeples Games, they're going to teach him how to play two or three great new titles, he's going to pay them MSRP for them, the cost will impact his budget not one iota, and a good time will be had by all once Dallas is done losing to Washington that afternoon and the game table and mixed drinks come out.

What happens when a board gamer is not in that value scenario?  When she follows the hobby enough not to need curation, or he has more time than money and can scour the webzones for that last 5% of bargain, or she is in no particular hurry and can defer gratification until that parcel arrives?  Ask these people why they don't shop at an FLGS for board games, and the answers are consistent.  Actual real quotes from one of the Board Game Geek threads:

  • "I will either save the $10 or not buy the game." - J.M.
  • "I do [shop at] both.  It makes financial sense to buy a $50 game for $30 online, whereas a $15 expansion only saves a few bucks." - R.S.
  • "The prices are lower elsewhere." - N.G.
  • "If every FLGS within 200 miles ceased to exist today my life would remain unimpacted." - B.C.
  • "I try to shop local, but sometimes online is 50% of the price." - R.C.
  • "Saving money is saving money." - N.W.
  • "You can't expect people to change economic behaviors so drastically." - I.S.
  • "My FLGS doesn't stock the things I want." - G.R.
  • "I usually play at the homes of friends." - C.B.
  • "I go online for value on pricing." - J.N.
  • "Money is the ultimate.  It doesn't matter how nice the local store is, price is king." - K.M.

Shall I continue?  I omitted the especially salty ones, such as those brusquely calling for the extinction of the FLGS entirely, whether to be supplanted by the mythical no-retail, all-service Board Game Cafe (approximately zero of which have succeeded under a typical capital deployment in the United States thus far) or to leave behind a world of Amazon drones dropping off Dead of Winter XIV: Zombie Summer Camp just in time for a game night that is only ever at home.  K.M. is a particularly tough audience, even the gorgeous, large, curated FLGS offers nothing he wants if the numbers on that tag aren't paired to a phrase ending in "percent off."

My board game stock at DSG is by no means the defining word on what board games to carry.  I see magnificent stores like Millennium Games, Imperial Hobbies, Rainy Day Games, Imperial Outpost, Games & Stuff, and Common Ground Games (to name only a few) stocking a far broader mix of board games with the heavy-hitting titles or the new hotness in depth.  But my stock might be informative as a look at what board games are punching their weight class in a category that has multiple intrinsics working against it.

Right now, I reorder to full on the following board games:

  • 7 Wonders (all SKUs)
  • Agricola
  • Android Netrunner (complete series, LCG)
  • Ascension (core only)
  • Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (all SKUs)
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill
  • Boss Monster (all SKUs deep)
  • Castle Panic (all SKUs)
  • Catan (core only, deep)
  • Civilization
  • Codenames
  • Cosmic Encounter
  • Costa Rica
  • Coup
  • Dead of Winter (Long Night is fine, it's newer)
  • Dixit (all SKUs)
  • Dominion (core and newest set only)
  • Five Tribes (all SKUs)
  • Forbidden Desert
  • Forbidden Island
  • FUSE
  • A Game of Thrones v2.0 (complete series, LCG)
  • Gravwell
  • The Great Dalmuti
  • Guillotine
  • HeroClix (ongoing, hybrid CMG)
  • King of Tokyo
  • Kittens in a Blender
  • Kitty Paw
  • Lanterns
  • Legendary (newest set and Marvel core)
  • Love Letter (base and pick a few licensed versions)
  • Mansions of Madness
  • Munchkin (base set and latest expansions)
  • Mysterium (all SKUs)
  • Mystic Vale
  • Pandemic (all SKUs, core deep)
  • Risk Legacy
  • Runebound
  • Seasons
  • Shadow Hunters
  • Small World
  • Smash-Up (core and newest set)
  • Splendor
  • Star Trek Panic
  • Star Wars Imperial Assault (complete series, hybrid minis game)
  • Star Wars X-Wing (complete series, hybrid minis game)
  • Storyline
  • Takenoko
  • Ticket to Ride (all SKUs)
  • Timeline (all modules)
  • TIME Stories (all SKUs)
  • Tokaido (all SKUs)
  • Yardmaster

And recently discontinued but I will stock plentifully while I can:

  • Blood Bowl Team Manager
  • Fury of Dracula
  • Penny Arcade DBG (both SKUs)
  • Talisman (core only)
  • Warhammer Quest Card Game

That's not my entire board game stock; all of the above at full shelf quantity amounts to a little under one-third of the total.  But the rest are not designated for replenishment.  They are either intentional one-and-dones, "system" games that are on their way out of production (such as the 40K Conquest LCG), and so on, or most commonly, games that failed to meet turn rate.

Can a new game win its way into the live rotation?  Absolutely!  I have a case of Lotus coming in and the early reaction within the trade is that it will be a winner.  Mystic Vale is still on its initial bleed and it will stick around if it hits turns by end of quarter.  I was overloaded on Quadropolis and Via Nebula thanks to the case-exclusive bonus items, but they might be safe keeps at one count; the former did eventually sell down to shelf level in a reasonable span of time at MSRP.

How does my stock measure up industrywide?  Against Amazon, it's absolutely Pareto-efficient: I have most of the 20% of titles that make up 80% of sales.  I fall utterly short of the online long tail.  I am of the belief that no independent retailer can ever really catch up to Amazon in that regard, mainly because Amazon fulfillment is mostly made up of third-party retailers anyway.  Your typical "alpha gamer" who craves all the most cutting-edge board games won't be able to get much from me; one would argue that they aren't going to get much from any source other than Kickstarter anymore.  The full total of my board game stock is a fragment of what the larger board-game-focused stores keep on hand.  At the same time I am a mile ahead of the dabblers and the mass market.  Your typical mainstream board gamer whose needle points just a shade more casual than average will find that what I stock is often uncannily close to what they will most enjoy playing.

How does my stock measure up locally?  There are two stores in metro Phoenix that stock board games more heavily than I do, and they are Imperial Outpost in Glendale and Game Depot in Tempe.  Neither of them sells comics, neither of them has a developed TCG scene, and neither of them sells video games.  It is easy for me to coexist with them these days, and not just because of distance, but also both are sufficiently tenured that they don't run off doing random stuff like the new stores that pop up and start dumping product in an attempt to buy a customer base.  Those two stores know what they're doing, and I can usually assume they are going to do the prudent business option, and then they do it.  I am grateful enough for the level of business certainty that they offer, that customer requests for board games that go beyond my depth level get an immediate and cheerful referral to them without hesitation.  I've said before a store should always make the referral, but usually we're silently kicking ourselves for not having what the customer wanted.  No regrets here.  They've earned that peak portion of the board game market and I render unto them that currency.

There exists one deeper hazard in the board game industry, and it's one that is not being discussed much yet because we are only barely becoming aware of it.  There are some outstanding board game retailers who put in countless hours and tremendous scouting and networking to "pick the hits" in the board game category, and they stock deep on those titles and make sales at MSRP for a month after the rest of the channel has run dry on a hot game.  But for all that effort, what if the bottom line dollar outcome is not that different than if they had just put those resources into business-as-usual for Magic, comics, miniatures, and/or video games?  In other words, what if a successful outcome with board games still isn't all that great, objectively speaking?

While we work out the answer to that question, the sharpest edge of the Board Game Geek contingent will continue to shop online and back Kickstarters, and will appear at retail grudgingly and only when all other options are exhausted.  They will then become upset because their former favorite game store is full of tables of people playing Magic and Warhammer.  Every now and then a dreamer will deplete his or her life savings in a failed attempt at a board game cafe, where the product doesn't meet turns at margin, and the tables don't meet turns at tempo.  If you figure out the endpoint of these trend lines before the rest of us do, please let us in on it: an entire industry wants to know.


  1. My old FLSG (Game On up in Prescott) used to do a board game night. Just people who would show up with their own games and who ever wanted to play could join in.
    I kinda miss that, as my current friend groups tend to balk at the more complicated games. Even ones I would consider relatively simple, like 7 Wonders. Most of our game nights turn into CAH or Exploding Kittens. While I enjoy those games, I like getting to sit down with a more involved game from time to time.

  2. Great article,though it will probably fall on deaf ears.

  3. Excellent. Completely true. The question of whether spending time analyzing and getting head of the curve on board games is a good one. I'm glad the industry experts are doing it, but it's not exactly low hanging fruit. Unless your passion is board games, almost anything is easier than being on the cutting edge of board games.

  4. One place that is bucking the trend on board game cafes is Snakes & Lattes in Toronto. I also know that the Cafe Mox part of CardKingdom does pretty well. Perhaps it's a matter of branding and position as much as the model - if the cafe part is branded right and creates it's own traffic separate from the game part, both can exist well enough to create a strong whole. Trying to integrate it all into a single "Board Game Cafe" positioning means that folks looking for food/drink aren't entering because they don't necessarily want to play a game while they're there.

    1. Cafe Mox and MBH are exactly who I am referring to when I add the caveat of a "typical capital deployment." They had a very different situation from that: essentially unlimited money and no ROI horizon. Nothing they are doing should be considered applicable industrywide.

      Canada and Europe have vastly different underlying economics and Amazon hasn't scorched the earth there yet, so perhaps that's where the bulk of board game cafes can thrive.

  5. So far I'm finding it to be very different. I have folks who say "Thank you for opening a games store where we can come to play." These are board gamers that are saying this. They are saying we are fine with paying MSRP, we want to support you.

    Rob Ross
    Carolina Tabletop Games

  6. Thanks so much for this excellent article. I've learned a lot.